From time to time, the OTW will be hosting guest posts on our OTW News accounts. These guests will be providing an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom where our projects may have a presence. The posts express each author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy. We welcome suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly.
Siyang Wei is a Chinese communist, a lesbian, and currently an MPhil student in Political and Economic Sociology at the University of Cambridge. They are especially interested in how ideological horizons shape discourses of identity and community, and hope one day to finish their Cambridge Latin Course fanfiction epic. Today, Siyang talks about fandom as a consumer identity.
How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?
I’m not really sure how I ‘first’ found out, mainly because I was pretty young. I also think there are a lot of things that could be understood as fandom or fanworks that you wouldn’t necessarily assume to be relevant on the face of it. I had a Tumblr account by the time I was 11 or 12, which is definitely where I started to gain awareness of fandom as an actual distinct thing or culture, but before that I had a LiveJournal account which I mainly used to dump on Twilight (I wasn’t very good at LJ either, but I’ll blame those both on being 11). Even before that, my sister and I used to do these extensive role-plays as various real-life celebrities, and I distinctly recall at one point finding an S Club Juniors fanfiction to crib ideas from. Does role-playing in itself count as a fan activity?
So when I really started getting into it was probably around 2010 or 2011, because I distinctly remember a few things that were going on at the time. I was an avid fan of the “Mark Reads” blog (where this guy called Mark wrote chapter-by-chapter reviews of his first time reading things like Twilight and Harry Potter). That was quite a structured fan space anchored around the blog posts, but there was also an interesting dimension of the fan objects being both the reviewed works and the “Mark Reads” blog itself. I might have gotten into that from my Twilight anti-fandom as well; dark times.
Similarly with some of the Youtubers I started watching (you know who they are). And on Tumblr, this was around the peak of Doctor Who/Sherlock fandom, and I was really into BBC Merlin as well. So I followed some people, and it kind of spiraled from there, and I ended up moving from fandom to fandom for a lot of things I hadn’t known about before, purely because I was loyal to certain users who started making posts about different things. Inception, Star Trek reboot, One Direction, ice hockey, Bandom, you name it –- if it blew up, I was probably there.
You wrote an article discussing fandom as a consumer identity and also stated that your fandom experiences on Tumblr led you to studying Sociology. Do you see these things as connected?
I’m not sure. There wasn’t a direct causal relationship as such, but looking back, I think my experiences with fandom on Tumblr and other sites over many years sort of eased me into a different way of engaging with popular media. The thing I still value about this sort of fandom is that it refuses to take cultural products at face value, and asserts a relationship with media that is both more personal and more explicitly social. It encourages us not just to enjoy things but to always go further and deeper in asking why and how we do so — what is it about us, the product, the relationships between us and the societies in which we are structured that creates these desires, these moments, these affects, individually and collectively?
I didn’t necessarily think of it this way at the time, but it’s really at the heart of fan activities like creating meta, writing fanfiction, developing these fandom socialities that are as much about ourselves in the world as they are the media around which they’re anchored — transformative works, basically. And now having written that, it’s quite clear to me that those fandom experiences were a way for me, as a teen who went to school and online and not much else, to develop and exercise a sociological imagination. And of course there were other things, and now that I’m no longer 15, some things about Tumblr fandom don’t feel so deeply important to me as they used to. But I can trace a germinal kind of critical, interpretive standpoint that has only become more deeply foundational in how I (try to) think about everything.
There is a definite move in fandom studies to reassess earlier decades of research during a time of very broad participation in fandom groups and declarations of a “fan” identity. Do you see anything specific that is bringing that to the fore at this particular time?
I do, and I think it would take a lot longer than a paragraph or two (and someone a lot smarter than I am) to talk about exactly what that is. Because when we talk about fandom or ‘fan’ identity, on one hand it’s often still seen as this peripheral thing, that doesn’t matter so much in the grand sociohistorical arc because of its small (and often socially marginalised) constituencies.
On the other hand, if you really look at it you can see it’s at the interstices of so many social, political, and economic transformations of the past few decades. This is especially true when you realise that fandom and ‘fan’ identity are becoming less a property of certain niche individuals or specific constituencies, and more a way that people are induced to relate to cultural products and to each other (and convergence of the two) under the conditions of late capitalism and technological fetishism. It speaks to a lot of things: what we mean when we talk about democracy, representation, and participation, especially in relation to the internet; the increasing stranglehold of large corporations on all aspects of life and what that does to cultural production; the postmodern fragmentation of subjectivities and drive towards hyper-individualisation; etc. Basically, it’s a lot; it’s ‘small’, but it’s also a lens through which you can see how it’s constituted by everything. A long way of saying ‘we live in a society’, I guess.
It’s clearer to me when I think about my own trajectory in relation to fandom, which I wrote about a bit in my article. I said in my previous answer that fandom encouraged me to think critically about myself and the media I consumed in relation to the wider society, which is true — but there is also a critical limit to it, in the sense that is generally bounded by a focus on the level of the ‘cultural’ and of representational politics. When I was talking about the idea of the ‘culture war’, that’s what I meant. The kind of fandom stuff I was part of was also really about (re)appropriating popular culture for ourselves, using it to explore issues of marginalisation & trauma & sexuality, making forceful readings that reorient the canon and what it’s ‘about’.
It’s also this perspective that encourages us to think of fandom as some inherently ‘progressive’ thing or that if it becomes more ‘mainstream’ it’s a sign of social progress. And I do get it, you know; I’m (British) Chinese, I’m a lesbian, there were a lot of things going on in my life that meant I spent most of my time online in my room. All of this was at that point genuinely important to me, and in some ways still is. But long story short, now I’m a communist, and I find myself increasingly frustrated by that kind of cultural politics that has nothing much to say about the material reality of the culture industries, and even misdirects our potential revolutionary energies into fighting each other over who gets represented in or to read ourselves into narratives that under neoliberal capitalism remain beyond our control in any meaningful sense. Maybe that’s a bit cynical, but to me the rise of fandom and ‘fan’ identity marks the intensification of exploitative consumer relationships in which we’re increasingly induced to feel a desperate, false kind of agency within that same exploitation.
So anyway, considering what I said in my first sentence, here are some things I would really recommend reading that I have personally found crucial for thinking about fandom and ‘fan’ identity: Jodi Dean’s Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies; James Curran, Natalie Fenton, & Des Freedman’s Misunderstanding the Internet, especially chapters 2 and 3; and (maybe a bit easier) this Cuck Philosophy video about capitalism and cultural disintegration (& Buzzfeed).
How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?
I didn’t know that much about the OTW before, but I do know a LOT about Archive of Our Own (which you run), so in that sense you have basically given me my whole life. I also have obviously spent some time on the Fanlore wiki because I love finding out about origin stories/why things are the way they are, and there are a lot of major developments/dramas that happened in the 2000s way before I was old enough to be aware of it.
I think I really heard about the OTW, specifically, when AO3 won that Hugo Award, and people were making jokes about how someone who’s published a single Spongebob/Bible crossover fic can now say they’re a Hugo Award winner. But it was actually for the project as a whole, not the individual works necessarily, but the really amazing online infrastructure OTW has created. And I think that’s so cool, because infrastructure is everything, and AO3 is a kind of democratic/democratising space (fan-run and free to use) in a way that’s increasingly rare online.
What fandom things have inspired you the most?
If I think about what I like now, some of it is stuff that maybe isn’t traditionally ‘fandom’ but falls along similar lines. I really did love Mark Reads/Watches, and at the moment I’m kind of obsessed with similar-ish reaction/review/analysis videos on YouTube — especially by people like Todd in the Shadows, Jenny Nicholson, and Big Joel. There was a Rogue One video essay that made me cry, and I also want to mention this ‘Voice Teacher Reacts’ guy called Sam Johnson, who comes across as so kind and earnest (and posted this video yesterday talking about why we like things). I’m tired of cool irony; these creators strike a chord of deliberate emotional honesty, and I love it.
So I think I have to end with fanfiction, because it’s the main way I’ve engaged with fandom and is something I still read quite a lot now. If we’re going into specifics, I read an ice hockey fic called “A Month of Sundays” that absolutely gutted me and made me think a lot about my relationship with my own family; I don’t think anything else has made me feel quite that way before. In a similar vein, two Harry Potter fics called “Such Great Heights” and “Away Childish Things” which have also inspired genuine personal reflection. Good fanfiction has a capacity for such intricate, revelatory depictions of the everyday that are hard to find anywhere else; it has absolutely, in many small ways, changed my life and who I’ve become.
And finally, the fact that there are apparently a lot of people out there who have time, energy, and dedication to write multiple novel-length works in their spare time, for the pure enjoyment and community, is amazing. All these things I’ve mentioned are things that have inspired me to also want to do them. And I’m trying, but it’s hard! Just writing this took me way too long. So I have huge respect for all those strangers whose work I have ever enjoyed.
Catch up on earlier guest posts